Women are not often told that the pain of labor has value. Women are taught to avoid the pain of labor, yet the intensity of labor contractions that we call pain and assume to be bad for women actually has benefits. With an absence of pain, real problems may arise during labor.
Three important benefits of labor pain:
- Decreases fetal distress
- Guides mother to optimal labor positions decreasing failure to progress
- Maintains productive labor tempo
Benefit One — Decreases fetal distress
Hormones that are produced in response to labor pain readies an infant’s lungs to function properly at birth preventing fetal distress. Fetal distress is a common reason for an unplanned cesarean birth. The hormones produced in response to the labor pain enable babies to receive sufficient oxygen throughout the labor process. So a woman experiencing the intensity of labor allows her body to protect her baby during childbirth and prepares her baby for life outside the womb.
Benefit Two — Guides mother to optimal labor positions decreasing failure to progress
A woman experiencing the intensity of labor pain instinctually changes her position throughout the labor process to alleviate her discomfort and also progress her labor. When a woman has no internal prompt to shift her body during labor, her contractions may weaken delaying birth. A woman moving in response to the sensations she feels during labor, aids the rotation and descent of her baby. However, lack of movement can create the opposite effect, delaying descent of the fetus’ head, adding back pressure and increasing pain. When the head is not able to progressively descend into the birth canal and apply pressure to the cervix, then sometimes contractions weaken, women may fail to dilate completely, and failure to progress may result. Failure to progress is a common reason for an unplanned cesarean birth.
Benefit Three — Maintains productive labor tempo
In labor nerves located in the cervix, pelvic floor, and vagina stretch sending signals to the pituitary gland to increase production of oxytocin, a hormone that causes the uterus to contract, strengthening contractions and progressing labor at just the right tempo. When these nerves are numb or too relaxed they stop signaling the pituitary gland to produce oxytocin, resulting in slower and weaker contractions. If contractions weaken then pitocin, a synthetic drug that stimulates the uterus to contract is sometimes offered to increase the pace of labor that has been diminished with the absence of pain. A side effect of pitocin is that it can over stimulate the uterus causing a very strong labor tempo that is difficult for a women’s body and baby to tolerate leading to intensive medical management and intervention.
Although labor pain is often defined as intolerable, and measures are used to avoid and escape labor pain, the fact remains that the body knows how to use pain sensations to benefit both mother and baby.
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